Reading Group Week 4: Plantinga’s Reply to Tooley’s Second Statement
July 20, 2008 — 14:15

Author: Clayton Littlejohn  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 6

In this section, Plantinga responds to Tooley’s response to his (Plantinga’s) opening statement. Got it? Obviously, we’re deep in the dialectic at this point. Plantinga focuses on two issues. First, he argues that Tooley has not adequately addressed his complaint that material beings cannot think. Second, he takes issue with Tooley’s response to the evolutionary argument against naturalism.

The Possibility of Thoughtbots
Recall that Plantinga claimed, “we can see on reflection, just as Leibniz suggested, that thought can’t arise from the interaction of the parts of a material object” (218). Tooley tried to explain how a material being could think by trying to explain how a material being such as a robot could have experiences and how those experiences could serve as the basis of thought if the experiences stand in the right sorts of causal relationships to behavior.
Recall that Tooley argued that things other than immaterial minds can have beliefs. Tooley believes it is possible for there to be a robot, Robbie, that has “internal, purely physical states [that] causally give rise to qualia” (202). In defense, he notes:

Well, human brain states causally give rise to sensations and experiences, so it is not easy to see how it could be logically impossible for electronic circuitry to do the same.

Next, Tooley goes on to describe how these qualitative states might serve as the building blocks, as it were, of belief. (See 203-4).
Plantinga, however, will have none of this. The issue, he says, is not a matter of how there could be physical causes of experiences and belief. The dualist can say (and has said) that there can be physical causes of experiences and belief when those physical causes have effects on the immaterial mind. The issue is how a material being without any immaterial soul or mind could have the qualia that serve as the building blocks from which a mind is built in accordance with Tooley’s specifications (221).
Now, Tooley anticipated this objection (as Plantinga notes on 222) and cites as evidence for the claim that material beings can think the example of non-human animals that can think, experience, feel, desire, intend, act, etc… Plantinga believes that there are NHA’s that have mental lives, but “fails to see the source of his presumption that they don’t have immaterial minds” (223). I think this reply is interesting, especially in light of Plantinga’s earlier remarks concerning evolution and immaterial souls. He notes (rightly) that it’s implausible to think that any of the physical changes that take place that lead to new forms of life will lead to the evolution of an immaterial self or soul (33). But, if the alternative view is that at some point in evolutionary development there are NHA’s that receive souls from some supernatural source, I can’t think of any reason why a supernatural entity would dole out souls to those and just those NHA’s we typically think have minds. I think there might be an interesting issue here. What justification is there for an immaterialist about minds to claim that NHA’s have minds if minds only result from some sort of supernatural intervention and the doling out of souls?
I think it’s interesting to note that Plantinga does not seem to respond to Tooley’s response to the claim that we can “just see” that material things cannot think (195-6). While I think it’s heroic for Tooley to try to show how a material being might have a mind, I think it’s sufficient for his purposes to have called into question the claim to be able to “see” that materialism about the mental is false. It would be nice to know why Plantinga thought that Tooley’s response was inadequate because I take it that many, if not most, materialists about the mental adopt a kind of aposteriori materialist view on which there is no way to “see” one way or the other whether mental powers, properties, etc… require anything beyond certain material things.
We’ve discussed the EEAN previously. Tooley, you’ll recall, offered two important responses to the EEAN. First, he denied the following claim, which seems crucial to Plantinga’s argument:
(A1) If P(R/N) is low or inscrutable, the naturalist has a defeater for each of her beliefs, the belief in naturalism included.
This seems to follow from a more general principle of defeat, which is that you have a defeater for your background beliefs if the probability of R/background beliefs is either low or inscrutable. The problem, Tooley claims, is that nothing of epistemic importance follows from the fact that P(R/background beliefs) is inscrutable. Hence, nothing of epistemic importance follows from the fact that P(R/N) is either low or inscrutable.
To this, Plantinga responds as follows:

Tooley asks us to consider an ordinary person who “initially believes that his cognitive faculties are reliable, but who has no idea what produced those faculties, or how probable it is, relative to the totality, T, of other things he is justified in believing, that his faculties are reliable” (p. 206). Tooley claims that on my position such a person would have a defeater for his belief that R … [But on my view] he has a defeater only if he has thought about this probability, and finds himself unable to say what it is.

Now, this initial response strikes me as odd. As I read Tooley, Tooley is saying that his subject has thought about it and has no bloody idea what P(R/T) is AND (this is the crucial bit) thinks it is intuitive to say that this subject does not have a defeater for his beliefs. But, to press the issue a bit, Plantinga goes on to say this:

By analogy, suppose you’ve just purchased a new sphygmomanometer; naturally enough, you assume that it is reliable. But now you learn that your sphygmomanometer was made in a factory owned by a Luddite who aims to create as much confusion as he can in the medical community, to that end by fashioning instruments a certain proportion of which are completely unreliable. You know this much, but you have no idea what that proportion is. Then the probability of your sphygmomanometer’s being reliable, given its origin, is inscrutable for you–and you certainly have a defeater for your initial belief that it is reliable (228)

I suppose Tooley might say this in response: I agree that you have a defeater for your beliefs about your blood pressure once you learn this new fact about the origin of the sphygmomanometer, but that’s quite different from the original scenario in which the subject had no specific reasons for doubting the reliability of his faculties.
Anyway, I do think there is an interesting issue here. Discuss.
Tooley’s second line of response is to argue that we should reject a crucial assumption in Plantinga’s argument if we assume a causal model of content. Recall that Plantinga’s argument assumes:
(7) If Darwinian evolution is true, then even if it is true both that neural states of type N are, in an organism H, reliable indicators of the presence of an instance of property P, and also that states of type N have content C, there is no reason why content C need to be related to property P.
Tooley’s response:

[I]f a property-dualist, causal theory of content is correct, and if a neural, indicator state does give rise to syntactically structured experiential states in an appropriate way, then that neural state is belief. In addition, if the neural state is an indicator of the presence of a basic descriptive property of experiences, such as qualitative greenness, then the causal relation in question fixes the content of the neural state. Finally, given the satisfaction of a further condition related to indexicality, the content of the neural state is precisely the indexical belief that that’s an instance of qualitative greenness. It is therefore false, in the case of neural states that have content, that, “there is no reason why that content need be related to what the structures indicate, if anything”, since the content of any indexical belief about a basic observational/introspectible property of experiences logically supervenes upon the causal relation that makes it the case that the relevant neural state is a reliable indicator of the qualitative property in question (210).

That was a mouthful. In short, if we assume the causal theory of content that Tooley advocates we ought to reject (7) on the grounds that the conditions that determine the contents of our belief states will reliably lead us to the truth. The reliable connections between the indicators and the properties indicated will be part of the content-determining conditions for the relevant beliefs, so we have reason to think that such beliefs will likely prove to be correct. Assuming, that is, that the theory of content Tooley advocates is the correct one.
Plantinga’s responses:
(i) Isn’t the claim that there is a necessary connection between the contents of beliefs and the properties indicated by the relevant reliable indicators “baseless”? (230)
(ii) If this account is extended to cover beliefs about things other than qualitative properties we can access through observation or introspection Tooley’s account succumbs to the “disjunction problem” (231).
(iii) There is no reason to think that under the conditions where a certain NP property causes adaptive behavior (e.g., by indicating the presence of a tiger) the belief that supervenes on these NP properties will have a content that is about a tiger because while, “the subvening properties must be adaptive … they can perfectly well do that no matter what the induced belief content (232).
Now, he’s aware that Tooley will say that on a causal theory of content the contents properly ascribed to the beliefs will depend (in part) upon what states of affairs stand in causal relations to the relevant NP’s. If that’s right, he might have to retract (iii). However, Plantinga says that the claim that the causal theory of content Tooley accepts is the correct one is baseless speculation:

Tooley merely assumes that the content of belief is fixed by causal relations, and, furthermore, so fixed that most beliefs will be true. That, it seems to me, is nothing like a successful response to the EAAN. It would be as if the theist responded to Tooley’s antitheistic argument by evil by simply postulating, without argument, that God has a good reason for permitting each of the evils the world displays. This proposition might be true … but merely postulating it isn’t much of a response to Tooley’s argument. I say the same holds for Tooley’s response to the EAAN.

At this point, I’m getting lost in the dialectic. First, I don’t think Tooley’s appeal to the causal theory of content is baseless. He presumably thinks that the causal theory is preferable to the intrinsic theory and thinks he has good reason for that preference. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I thought that there were good arguments for thinking that regardless of whether naturalism is true or not, the causal theories of content are preferable to the intrinsic theories. Why is it that Tooley can’t help himself to the causal theory? Second, if Tooley has shown that the EAAN only works if we insist that naturalism is not coupled with the causal theory of content Tooley prefers, I’d think this is a big setback. It’s not obviously irrational for a naturalist to accept that theory. It seems the best theory for the naturalist to adopt. If Plantinga is going to assert that naturalism is self-defeating, you’d hope that he’d argue that even if the naturalist helps herself to the best theory of thought content on the market the theory would still be self-defeating. It now seems that the complaint is not that the theory is self-defeating, but that a crucial aspect of it lacks external support. The naturalist will deny this, but that seems now to be where the action is.
As for (ii) I have to confess that I had a hard time understanding the significance of the disjunction problem in this context. (Maybe Plantinga is at this point just throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Tooley?) I thought that the disjunction problem was a problem for certain causal theories of content that took the content of a mental representation to be what caused tokens of that type of representation. If tokens were caused by, say, horses and zebras, how could there be beliefs that misrepresented the situation as one involving a horse when a zebra was present? Why wouldn’t the representation represent things as involving either a horse or zebra? While this is an interesting problem, why is this Tooley’s problem? Less determinate thought contents are less likely to be false than more determinate ones. (If every time you believe ‘That’s a horse’, I belief ‘That’s a horse or a zebra’, it’s more likely I’ll be right than you.) The disjunction problem is a problem for causal theories of content, not a problem for those who think that our beliefs will likely be true if that is the proper theory of content. This is a puzzling section.

  • Mike Almeida

    I suppose Tooley might say this in response: I agree that you have a defeater for your beliefs about your blood pressure once you learn this new fact about the origin of the sphygmomanometer, but that’s quite different from the original scenario in which the subject had no specific reasons for doubting the reliability of his faculties.
    There seem to be three distinctions here.
    1. I know that my sphygmomanometer was made by an unreliable manufacturer, but do not know how unreliable it is (not knowing even the range of unreliability).
    2. I do not know whether my sphygmomanometer was made by an unreliable manufacturer and am not certain how unreliable it is.
    3. I have no reason to believe that my sphygmomanometer was made by an unreliable manufacturer and no reason to believe it is unreliable.
    But it seems like only (3) offers no defeat. Plantinga’s arument begins with the assumption that R is credible. If R is credible and I learn (3) is true, then R remains credible. But if R is credible and I learn that (2) is true, then my credence for having an unreliable sphygmomanometer is about even (even if I don’t know how unreliable it is). That defeats my belief in the reliability of my faculties. Tooley’s view seems ambiguous between (2) and (3). Or would you say it is clearly (3)?

    July 22, 2008 — 7:56
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Mike,
    Good question. I’m not sure whether Tooley’s view is closer to (2) or (3). But let me offer a couple of observations.
    First, I’m not sure that (2) ‘offers defeat’, as you put it. One way of not knowing whether some means for arriving at the truth is reliable is not having a well-founded belief or basis for such a belief. I don’t think that a necessary condition on, say, perceptually justified belief is that there is a justification for taking perceptual experience to be a reliable guide to the truth antecedent to our empirical beliefs. So, I’d say:
    (2pe) Most folk do not know whether their perceptual faculties are reliable and are not certain how unreliable they are.
    But, I’d add that most folk are justified in their perceptual beliefs in spite of the fact that (2pe) is true and perhaps even if they were to believe that (2pe) were true. That last part is where things get tricky, but am I reading you correctly in thinking that there is a defeater for beliefs based on the sphygmomanometer when (2e) is true or only if (2e) is believed to be true?
    Second, I have a general worry about Plantinga’s revised case. I think it’s been pretty well established that when the possibility of error becomes salient to the subject, the intuitions of those attributing justification and knowledge to that subject tend to be intuitions that either support saying that there is no justification/knowledge/right to believe or fail to support the claim that there is justification/knowledge/right to believe. (Think about beliefs in lottery propositions, for example, and the way in which lottery cases are used to argue for soft scepticism.) I’m not sure what to make of these intuitions, but I know that describing scenarios in such a way as to make the possibility of error salient to the speaker is a way of manipulating our intuitions to get a more sceptical result.
    Third, I wonder if Plantinga is going to face a problem akin to the Cartesian circle. Suppose someone adopts some sort of theistic view and that the elements of that view would have to be inferentially justified if justified at all. In the process of constructing that view, it seems that the believer would start from a set of background beliefs on which P(R/initial building blocks) is either low or inscrutable because P(R/initial building blocks) is inscrutable. In their initial state, it seems they’d have a defeater for each of their beliefs if Plantinga’s principles are correct. I can’t see how they could rectify this situation unless we were to agree that it’s not irrational for someone to have beliefs on which P(R/beliefs) is inscrutable. If they end up with grounds for saying that P(R/beliefs) is low, bad news. If they lack such grounds, no big deal. If more is insisted upon, scepticism.
    I’m being pulled out the door.

    July 22, 2008 — 12:52
  • Mike Almeida

    but am I reading you correctly in thinking that there is a defeater for beliefs based on the sphygmomanometer when (2e) is true or only if (2e) is believed to be true?
    Yes, right, I had in mind someone (using the first person pronoun) asserting (2). I’m very surprised that you do not see that as defeating my belief that, for instance, my latest sphygmomanometer reading is accurate. Similarly, if I assert,
    2pe’. I do not know whether my perceptual faculties are reliable and am not certain how unreliable they are.
    then it seems to me clear that I have a defeater for any belief based (solely) on my perceptual faculties. No? I mean, isn’t there something incoherent (or at least strange) in asserting,
    “I’m warranted in believing there is a tree there on the basis of my perceptual faculties and I don’t know whether those faculties are reliable.”

    July 22, 2008 — 14:42
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    I have to apologize for not getting back to you more quickly, I’ve been traveling.
    I’d agree that there is something strange in asserting:
    (1) I’m warranted in believing there is a tree there on the basis of my perceptual faculties and I don’t know whether those faculties are reliable.
    Someone might say the belief that a first-order belief is warranted/justified had better be accompanied by a belief that the means by which that belief is attained is reliable and that’s what makes for the oddity of (1), but I’d also say that the following is odd:
    (2) I’ve looked out the window. There’s a tree there, but I don’t know whether my faculties are reliable.
    The question, of course, is what to make of this. I confess that I don’t know what to make of it, but one of the worries that I raised above is that if we’re to adopt a non-sceptical view I don’t see that a requirement on having justified beliefs about the external world is available antecedent justification for believing that the means by which our beliefs are attained are reliable. If we drop that assumption, I’d think that merely recognizing that P(Rsensefaculties/background beliefs) is inscrutable is not sufficient for the possession of a defeater for beliefs backed by sense experience. So, I guess I’d ask you if you thought that there was a way of avoiding this sceptical worry if we accept the principle that a subject’s beliefs cannot be rationally maintained unless the subject’s (justified) background beliefs are such that P(R/background beliefs) is neither low nor inscrutable.

    July 24, 2008 — 20:15
  • Andrew Moon

    “I think it’s interesting to note that Plantinga does not seem to respond to Tooley’s response to the claim that we can “just see” that material things cannot think (195-6).”
    Hi Clayton,
    Plantinga does respond to Tooley’s third point about conflicting intuitions (p. 222, n2). He seems to think that many materialists do share his intuition, but thinks that they think that there are stronger reasons for accepting materialism. I wonder if this is true for most materialists?
    Consider the intuitions that Searle’s Chinese room can’t understand Chinese or Block’s nation of China (suitably functionally organized) can’t have mental states. Most people at least share these intuitions. But they might think that there are countervailing reasons for rejecting those intuitions. Is that the case? I don’t know the literature.
    Perhaps there is a parallel here. I think that Plantinga was just taking those thought experiments (and the corresponding intuitions) to the next level where he included all material objects (whereas Searle was only concerned w/Strong AI and Block w/functionalism). Maybe most people will share the intuition (in the Leibniz example) but think that there are stronger reasons for rejecting it because of arguments for materialism. What do you think?

    July 24, 2008 — 23:57
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hey Andrew,
    I’m sure there must be people who share those sorts of intuitions. However, I think there are plenty of people agnostic who have no view as to whether materialism is true or not who simply point out that there is nothing to the concept of material object that rules out its having the sorts of powers in virtue of which we would say it has a mind and nothing to the concept of mental state that precludes its being a state of such object. So, it’s not a case of overriding reasons being offered to justify believing something in spite of intuition. It’s more a case in which one thinks that one’s intuitions cannot possibly reveal what they’d reveal if they were veridical, so to speak. Moreover, for the reasons mentioned earlier I think there’s a world of difference between the example of a thinking material thing and a heavy proposition.

    July 25, 2008 — 0:17